It seems like a weird marriage. That thought went through my mind when I was invited to sample the season’s new dishes at RockSugar in Century City. The restaurant known for Malay-style spiced beef and generously-stuffed smosas helmed by a Singaporean chef is the brainchild of the CEO of the Cheesecake factory.
But Dave Overton, who’s also chairman of the worldwide chain, has a flip side to his corporate executive persona. He loves ferreting out new dishes and tastes while traveling around the world to check up on his Cheesecake Factory branches from Puerto Rico to Dubai (and soon even Hong Kong). For him, the flavors of short rib banh mi or vegetarian pot stickers are the perfect fit for Los Angeles’ Asian-influenced food culture.
Overton’s chef and partner in the venture, Mohan Ismail, hails from Singapore and the restaurant’s pan Asian menu clearly borrows from the cuisine of his birth country. Singaporean food is an amalgam of Chinese, local Malay and Indian with pinches of this and that from Thailand and Vietnam.
But RockSugar’s cooking has a slight modern edge. I’m guessing that Ismail’s tenure at Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s interpretive Pan Asian Spice Market in Manhattan’s Meat Packing district has guided his cooking here in L.A. He says while working there he helped develop recipes for many of the restaurant’s Southeast Asian-style street foods. No surprise then that many items come close to hawker-stall favorites.
As you might expect from a corporate entity, RockSugar’s goal is to please as many palates as possible. If you yearn for duck organ soup or cricket curry the restaurant’s populist menu may not excite you. On the other hand the kitchen has the wherewithal to procure excellent raw ingredients and they do. When an appetizer of meaty pork ribs comes to the table in its glossy chili caramel glaze, the bones are always licked clean. The large succulent spicy chicken meatballs with Thai basil also do a quick disappearing act as do the lettuce wraps mounded with lots of well-seasoned chicken and fresh mushrooms.
The setting has a Vegas-like opulence that’s over-the-top fun. The soaring ceilings seem about three stories high and everywhere you look carved objects and statues set into alcoves glow with golden light. Several golden Buddha’s stare down on a sleek bar that seems made for mixing up popular island resort-style drinks like Singapore slings or Thai basil gimlets.
These days dishes like Chicken pho or beef sate are comfort food for most Angelenos. RockSugar has many such dishes but the new menu additions lean in the direction of the fusion creations you’re seeing in many mainstream restaurants.
My favorite example of this is is a duck salad. A pile of five spice-infused meat—bronzed skin side up—sitting over greens is sprinkled with ruby red pomegranate seeds, candied pecans, bits of grapefruit and loads of fresh herbs. Every bite seems both rich and fresh at the same time.
Border-crossing desserts include a rice pudding that’s a take on the popular Thai sticky rice with mango and there’s a sophisticated coconut cream pie with a jasmine rice crust piled high with pandan leaf-flavored meringue.
Now that banh mi are so popular several have been added to the menu. One has a filing of spicy chicken meatballs on a classic baguette. It isn't something you find in little Saigon but it, like just about everything I tasted, is hard to stop eating.